Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’
An Encounter with Climate Change
On 11 December 2018, Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing invited London’s art public to participate in their Climate Action. “Put your hands on the ice, listen to it, smell it, look at it and witness the ecological changes our world is undergoing” requests the large panel on the façade of the Tate Modern, which introduces the installation Ice Watch. In front of the industrial building Eliasson and Rosing positioned 24 blocks of ice in the style of ancient stone circles. These blocks were taken from the Nuup Kangerlua Fjord in Greenland, after their detachment from the ice layer.
The thaw of the ice and thus climate change are to be experienced in the middle of London framed by the river Thames, skyscrapers and St. Paul’s cathedral. The urban setting underlines London as a commercial and financial centre, but also as a metropolis steeped in history. The architecture as cultural product is juxtaposed with the ice blocks as references to nature, which as ‘travellers’ passively and quietly embody their own history and impending fate. The ice blocks function similarly to Bilderfahrzeuge, bridging time and space, but beyond that they embody supposed memories of a time in which humankind was still united with nature, or in which nature showed its sublimity before the eyes of humankind. In this setting they are transformed to monuments and memorials at the same time. Therefore, the thawing ice serves as artwork not only as a mark of climate change, but also as a natural time-storage device in which long-extinct organisms are located; it conveys an original past before historiography, which, as stated in the artist’s instructions, should be approached physically. Thus, they become objects of a yearning for an untouched, constant nature, which results in a neo-romantic longing and accordingly defines mankind’s relationship to nature as well as its paradigms of action.
Saviour and Survivor
The gigantic ice blocks were brought to the city to be seen by all. They are meant to bring a moment that seems to be far away to the forefront, and to present the future changes of the earth as a living space. We watch as the eternal ice fades and the last ‘survivors’ of prehistoric times slowly but surely disappear. It is estimated that the ice blocks will last ten days until they have completely disintegrated. Consequently, viewers quickly take some photos of the crystalline and sublime structure of the ice, encircle it, look at it from all angles, smell it, taste it, touch it, embrace it, become one with it. Following this motto, a performative action took place on December 12th, which guided visitors to whisper something to the ice, to imitate the crackling melting noises in their singing, to touch the ice, to become one with the ’nature’ and thus with the history of the earth. “We are one” is sung by the crowd. The desire to experience the ephemeral beauty of the ice blocks as vividly as possible, to savour the moment, to enter into unity with this exhibited nature of prehistoric times, to feel it before it is too late, leads to an almost spiritual act of merging and finally melting away. Under the embraces and caresses of the activated viewers, one can observe within an hour how the ice blocks weighing 1.5 to 5 tons lose up to a third of their size.
For in the moment in which nature is perceived as an endangered entity, the human becomes aware of themselves as a relational being in the sense of Gernot Böhme’s atmospheric theory. He is no longer a purely rational subject, but becomes a body that acknowledges its own transience, but above all also its dependence on nature as his habitat. This corporeality in turn leads to a sensuality, whereby the experience of nature, the feeling of oneself in environments, becomes an aesthetic question. But in the case of Ice Watch it is not primarily the human who turns out to be nature, but it is nature which is anthropomorphized by the human. This results in an experience of corporeality that not only includes one’s own bodily being, but also anthropomorphizes the ice blocks. Through the ‘unity’ of mankind and nature, the gigantic blocks become creatures worth protecting. A shielding impulse is occasionally triggered, which the participants respond to by direct contact. Here, the process of the Anthropocene becomes visible in a time laps: The Anthropos leaves traces on the surface of the ice through its touches, thereby exposing layers that trigger aesthetic effects, but above all his body heat inevitably causes the ice to melt. In this performative act, the human being thus forms ‘nature’ in rapid succession and consequently lends presence to the event as part of the Anthropocene that is constantly taking place and only becomes visible over time.
Protection and Demolition
An accelerated influence is the subject of this performative interaction with the 24 ice blocks, which are not only travellers in the sense of a local migration from the North Pole via Greenland to London, but also witnesses of a temporal earth history. They build a temporal bridge from deep time to the present and even want to point beyond it: Global warming, floods, natural catastrophes – the visualization of a future in which the earth no longer provides a habitat for humankind.
Eliasson himself comments on his work with the following words: “As an artist, I am interested in how we give knowledge a body. What does a thought feel like, and how can felt knowledge encourage action? Ice watch makes the climate challenges we are facing tangible. I hope that people will touch the inland ice on city hall square and be touched by it. Perception and physical experience are cornerstones in art, and they may also function as tools for creating social change. We are all part of the ‘global we’; we must all work together to ensure a stable climate for future generations.” But the sensual-bodily experience produces a compassion that is directed at the ice blocks. The participants embrace the ice blocks and try to grasp them as long as it is still possible.
The aim of the action is therefore a genesis of attention through the bridging of spatial and temporal distances and a resulting experience of nature that calls for action. The actual result, however, is an aesthetic experience whose photogenic qualities overshadow its warning signs. In this moment of sensual experience, the thought of transporting the gigantic glacier parts, which meant an enormous expenditure of energy, their pictorial dissemination in social media through technologies that also represent a high consumption of resources, no longer play a relevant role. Sublimation and supposed memory of a time in which man and nature lived in peaceful coexistence, as well as aesthetic experiences, cross-fade any appeal for action in the sense of climate protection and the regulation of its consequences.
Acceleration and self-referentiality
In Eliasson’s artistic examination of the Anthropocene and the consequences of climate change, different aspects are addressed, but not entirely resolved. Ice Watch changes the perspective, however, it perhaps does not capture a targeted and goal-oriented thematization of climate change, even if this is emphasized many times, but rather shows social structures and perspectives in the wake of the anthropocentric debates. Considering the performative action of December 12th, Ice Watch brings the Anthropocene to the fore in the sense of anthropocentrism. The self-centeredness of mankind nurtured by economic, ecological and apocalyptic fears in the age of climate change reinforces the desire for experiences of nature and corporeality. At the same time, the encounter with the ice blocks doesn’t mainly reveal a forthcoming future, but forms the ground for discourses about self-description of mankind, as well as its conceptions and ideas of a world in which it forms the centre.